Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Piano plugins: an overview of inexpensive options (part two)

If you haven't done so already, please read the first part of this article for the necessary context and terminology. Then, read this article to accompany the video on YouTube. There you will get to listen to all 23 pianos. 

How to use these instruments

These instruments are all accessed as plugins within your DAW. Sixteen of the 23 are instrument libraries for the popular Kontakt sampler. One piano is included to represent Decent Sampler. There is one instrument from Spitfire Labs and one from Spitfire Origins. The remaining six products use dedicated plugins, specific to those vendors. 

To use a plugin your DAW, follow this standard workflow: 

  • add a MIDI track to your project
  • add the VSTi (VST instrument) as a plugin to that track
  • if this plugin is a sampler, choose the specific library from within the plugin
  • record MIDI from your keyboard (or import a pre-recorded MIDI file)
  • during playback an recording, the plugin interprets the MIDI instructions as sound
  • the result can be rendered to an audio file

That's essentially what I did in each of the following cases. I should note that a few of the pianos are also available as standalone applications, but I didn't evaluate them in that context. 

How I selected the instruments

At first, I chose only free plugins. But then I added two inexpensive options that I had on hand. I didn't target commercial instruments, as these have been thoroughly reviewed by others. This article is for those artists on the road less travelled. 

Several products didn't work properly or presented annoying barriers. I'm sure that I could get them to work, but with so many other options, why go through the hassle? Here are a few I tried.

Foundations Piano by Heavyocity is a soft grand piano for Kontakt. It's provided through a shopping cart, so you must register and provide a full address. Installing Heavyocity Portal then provides access to four free instruments (the others are Nylon Guitar, Staccato Strings, and Synth Bass). However, I couldn't get the installed piano to work. 

Soft Imperial by VSL is a Bösendorfer Imperial sampled for Kontakt. This requires an iLok account, so I decided to skip it. 

Quite a number of the idiosyncratic pianos at Pianobook have excessive pedal noise that can't be reduced (e.g. Air Piano). I've included only one of these instruments, so you can hear what they sound like. 

Unfortunately my experience with Decent Sampler was poor (see last article). Again, I include one example, so you can hear the audio problems for yourself. 

The 23 pianos will now be considered in two broad categories.

Full-range pianos

The first twelve pianos in this comparison have a wide frequency spectrum and expression that can handle different dynamics. Therefore they should be useful in any context. If you want less treble simply apply a filter. If you want reduced dynamics, apply a compressor or change their internal velocity response. 

Studiologic have decided to offer a full suite of instruments free of charge, in order to add value to their hardware offerings. Numa Player contains 24 instruments in four categories: pianos, electric pianos, keys (clavinet, harpsichord, vibes, marimba), and strings & pads. You can layer sounds and process them using a dozen built-in effects. Numa is available as both a standalone application (for Windows, macOS, and iOS) and a plugin. The total size appears to be only 250 MB, so I assume that these are physically modelled.

Two of their instruments are included in this comparison. The "Model D 1983" and "The Upright" have controls for tone, string resonance, duplex, and damper noise. The tone is immediately appealing and interface dead simple. 

Sound Magic is a company with a confusing web presence and naming system. Neo Piano is their VST plugin, which hosts an instrument called Piano One, which is available free from a dedicated website. You'll thank me for that link, because if you download from their master website, you must jump through hoops (including entering a password). Once downloaded, you run an installer that copies the VST to the designated plugin folder but leaves the actual samples where they are! So, you must copy that samples folder manually. Then, once you load the plugin, click in the big area so labelled, and locate where you put the samples. After all this work, you'll wonder why they have an installer at all!

The full version of Neo Piano is $299 (reduced from $499) and offers seven pianos totalling 45 GB. Piano One is a free Yamaha C7 Concert Grand which seems limited only in note duration (though it goes to 18 seconds!) and the lack of string resonance. It has many controls to shape the sound to your liking: harmonics, tone, perspective, dynamics, damping, resonance, and noises (pedal, string, hammer off). It has two unique features. First, you can load Scala files in order to change the note tuning. Second, you can turn on an "AI" feature that appears to interpret the MIDI file in order to add performance touches. 

Unfortunately I could not get the full MIDI clip to render, no matter how I tried. The opening was always cut off, as though the engine was taking several seconds to respond. Perhaps this would work in a different DAW. 

XLN Audio offer a Modern Upright (a Yamaha U3) for €90 through their Addictive Keys plugin. The demo version is restricted to three of the original seven microphone perspectives (not a big limitation) and four octaves of range (perhaps a bigger problem). Side note: Throughout the internet you might read references to XLN Studio Grand as their free product, but it's no longer available.

Like Piano One, this instrument includes myriad sound-shaping possibilities: softness; pedal and sustain noise; softness; envelopes for pitch, filter, and amplitude; multiple microphones and positions; plus various effects (tremolo, chorus, EQ, delay, reverb).

To represent the Spitfire Originals series, we have the Yamaha C3 Grand from the Media Toolkit collection. Though it's not a free product, this has been included here since the €29 price is entirely dedicated to a charity. You get 24 instruments in 2.3 GB. Though some are novelty items, the package is undeniably a good deal. The piano has an electronic piano ("CS-EP") mode and a third mode without the hammer portion ("pad"). You can control attack and release, while adding plate or "lush" reverb. IMO the plugin interface is unnecessarily large and bland. 

Piano in 162 (5.9 GB) by Ivy Audio runs in Kontakt. You get a Steinway Model B recorded with five dynamic levels and two round robins. Unfortunately sound customisation is limited to choosing the mix of close and ambient mics. This is unfortunate, since the piano sounds nice. 

The next two instruments are included to remind ourselves of how far sampled instruments have come in a decade. City Piano is one of many instruments available through the Big Cat compendium of freebies. This Baldwin Baby Grand has 4 velocity layers in 181 MB. I tested the "Vospis version" of the instrument, which has been packaged for Kontakt. Amore Grand Piano from Precision Sound is a similarly tiny (182 MB) recording of a Yamaha Grand. Big Cat was once a great place to source libraries, but I now consider it defunct. We no longer measure applications in megabytes and there are many better instruments in this comparison. I've had these instruments on my drive for so long that I can't remember!

The next four pianos are by Dore Mark, who appears to be something of a sampling prodigy. The Mason & Hamlin Model A (610 MB) was recorded with two Audio Technica AT2035's and a Samson GoMic... since that's all he had! There are three dynamic layers and four round robins. He provides envelopes for pitch, amplitude, and the filter. Each of the three layers can be mixed and panned. An additional panel provides access to a sequencer! 

For subsequent instruments Mark removed this novelty and invested in larger libraries with useful features. The pianos in the Experience series include virtual audio and Ambisonic recording. These features won't be the focus of this article, so I'll be evaluating the stereo versions.

The Experience: Fazioli F308 (4.7 GB) is a concert grand over ten feet long. This is an instrument not everyone gets to hear! This recording has 5 velocity layers and two sets of adjustable microphones. The close mics are U87 clones over the soundboard. The room mics are stereo C214 in XY configuration, placed about a meter away from the piano. There's control over releases, reverb, tone ("color"), and half-pedaling, a technique which changes the sustain amount. 

The Experience: Yamaha S6 (6.7 GB) is a semi-concert grand with 7 velocity layers. This was again recorded with two sets of microphones. A pair of K87 in AB array over the strings have adjustable polar patterns. The SE8 small diaphragm mics in ORTF configuration cover the hammers. As before, you can adjust reverb, tone, and half-pedaling. A new feature provides control over the mechanical noises of the pedals.

The Experience: New York S&S Model B (6.5 GB) has 7 velocity layers and the same features as the S6, with the addition of modeled sympathetic resonance. This adds significant richness to the sound, but do note that it can increased polyphony enormously... from 20 to over 100 voices. 

My Piano by Fluffy Audio is a upright piano presented as a Kontakt instrument. This was recorded with AudioTechnica AT4060 tube microphones through NEVE preamps, for a warmer sound than similar pianos. There are a minimum of 6 velocity layers across the keyboard. Pedal resonance is provided, plus you can add occasional crackles... should you wish. Sympathetic resonance is also implemented, all within a reasonable 1.7 GB. Note that the screenshot shows only one of the five customisation tabs. This product retails for €69 but was discounted as a fund-raiser during the pandemic. I obtained it on sale for €19 and so consider it a worthy entry here. 

Niche pianos

In the last number of years there's been an explosion of interest in pianos that are felted, muted, covered in gaffer tape, or otherwise modified. These frequency-limited instruments are designed for introspective soundtrack work and down-tempo genres. They have built-in character, so that you don't need to spend the time transforming a full-range instrument into the desired intimate sound.

I'll start with Manthey Klaviano (453 MB) by Michele Pedrazzi, since it's the only instrument in this selection that is available exclusively for Decent Sampler. I've included it as an example of the distortion mentioned in the previous article, the fatal flaw in the Decent Sampler implementation. The Klaviano is a small spinet piano, made in Berlin. Recorded with a pair of Rode M5 microphones, this virtual instrument has four dynamic layers and two round robins.

Christian Henson has contributed several recordings of his Schimmel upright to Pianobook. Summer Felt (1.9 GB) has the expected soft tone, achieved by placing a felt strip between hammers and strings. Spring Piano (258 MB) allows you to mix three microphone signals: stereo pair of M149a, mono Soyuz, stereo Sontronics Apollo 2 (ribbon mic). Max’s Bentley Upright (347 MB) was miced with a pair of Coles ribbon mics and AKG 414. There are three round robins but only two dynamic layers. Antique (630 MB) is an out of tune Pleyel piano with pad. All of these have minimal interfaces and varying amounts of pedal noise. 

Mom’s 1974 Baby Grand (1.2 GB) by The Imperfect Drummer is a William Knabe & Co. piano that is also in dire need of tuning. There are controls for key, release, and pedal volume, plus stereo spread, which sounds rather good turned up. 

Kady Alice has contributed two pianos to Pianobook. Evergreen Performance (1 GB) is named for Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington. A Baldwin grand piano was recorded in a recital hall using Coles 4038 ribbon microphones through Rupert Neve’s Shelford preamps to Otari 8-track tape. The only controls are for additional reverb. Evergreen Session (2 GB) was recorded in studio with Coles 4038 ribbon microphones (close miked) and AKG 414 condenser microphones (room sound) to a Neve console. The same reverb is present, but here we can mix between the mic sets. 

To represent Spitfire Labs we have their classic Soft Piano (400 MB). Recorded at Air Edel Studios in London, this instrument, like all in the Labs series, runs in a dedicated plugin with almost no customisation options.Velocity sensitivity and reverb are the only options. 

The Upright Felt Piano from Westwood Instruments has only two layers but several controls to tune the sound in Kontakt: equalisation, saturation, stereo width, reverb, keyboard and pedal volumes. This free version (merely submit your email) has one less mic position than its commercial counterpart, Alt Piano (€59). 


That completes this mammoth survey of piano plugins. I will now make a few further editorial comments. But please don't read ahead unless you've listened to the recordings and made up your own mind. I look forward to your comments, either here or on YouTube. 

First I'll reiterate two disappointing facts that make it difficult to find free pianos. First, Decent Sampler is not ready for use. Second, all the free Kontakt instruments require the full version of Kontakt, at a non-discounted price of $300. This buy-in gives you access to hundreds of different instruments, but it would be incorrect to say that any of them are free. If all you want is a piano, $300 will buy you many available commercial products . Yet this survey did not include these, and so this article can be considered incomplete for readers in that situation. 

What can I recommend?

Numa Player by Studiologic gives you access to four pianos and twenty other instruments, in a small package that sounds just fine (to my ears "good" but not "great"). This is a no brainer download. If you want an alternative upright piano, get the demo version of XLN Audio's Addictive Keys, so long as the limited range (four octaves) suits you. 

If you want a low-priced (€29) piano in a suite with other instruments, consider the Originals Media Toolkit from Spitfire Audio. This recording of a Yamaha is not as robust as other grand pianos, but works very well in a mix. (It's what I used for the video theme.)  I prefer this to the free Soft Piano in Spitfire Labs. Mostly because I just don't see the point in getting an instrument with all the highs rolled off. You can never add these frequencies back. Whereas, you can always apply a low-pass filter to a bright instrument to make it duller. 

Now for the Kontakt instruments. I'll assume that you already own that sampler, so that I can still write about these as inexpensive! 

You can't go wrong with Dore Mark's work, especially the Yamaha S6 and New York S&S Model B. These have a full tone with plenty of dynamics and sound-shaping options that respect the instruments. It's hard to imagine the amount of work that went into these free instruments. 

Fluffy Audio's My Piano is a lovely upright with loads of customisation. It's likely worth the €69 but is definitely good value when it goes on sale.

Of the free niche pianos I'd favour two by Christian Henson. Spring Piano has multiple microphone positions, unlike his other recordings. Max’s Bentley Upright has a rather broken-down sound that could be useful. Westwood Instruments' Upright Felt Piano is highly customisable and eminently suits quiet music.


We are indeed spoilt for choice when it comes to pianos, thanks to the tireless work of recording engineers and developers. I have certainly learned a lot through this long process. In fact, I have several new pianos in my collection, and will now delete some of the tired old plugins on my hard drive. 


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